Three months ago, a senior reporter of Tamil Nadu wrote an article on an e-magazine. He said, “Rumours are afloat about the Chief Minister’s health. There have been no clarifications and denials from either the Chief Minister or the state government on these. Their silence only lends credibility to these rumours…” Chief Minister Jayalalithaa filed a defamation suit against him for the article.
The fact that he had mentioned that there was no clarification on behalf of the Chief Minister had become the cause of defamation!
She was a news reader on the satellite TV channel run by one of the leaders of the opposition. She simply read out the text, written by the team of news editors, which appeared on the teleprompter. On the third day, a rude shock awaited her. A defamation case was filed against the team of news editors of the channel for slandering the reputation of the Chief Minister. On the list of accused was the name of the newsreader too! The lady newsreader appears in court whenever the case comes up for hearing. She said, “My marriage is getting delayed due to this case. We are unable to explain the nature of the case to the prospective grooms and their families. They think that a case has been filed against the girl, and simply go away.”
What makes it all the more ironic is that she is not even a full-time employee of the channel. She is a part-time newsreader who appears only once or twice a week and has no say in the channel’s editorial policies or its choice of news. But she too is listed as one of the accused.
He is one of the leading news editors of an English news channel. He has interviewed some of the biggest names in India. His debate shows are extremely popular all over the country. The TV channel’s Chennai correspondent reported that the corruption had occurred in the state government’s free egg scheme. The state government retaliated by immediately filing defamation suits against the correspondent and the chief news editor. The chief news editor came all the way from New Delhi to Vellore for the court hearing. From then on, the channel stopped commenting about the Tamil Nadu government. This chief editor is known for making some of the most powerful politicians of North India shiver in their seats with his barrage of questions.
Defamation suits aim at planting this seed of fear. The intention of the state government is to create this element of fear and nervousness. This is the weapon of choice for the government on one and all – from media-persons to the leaders of the opposition. With law as its tool, it goes about strangling the right to freedom of expression, something that was guaranteed by the very law that is now being used to stifle it. The strategy of slowly curtailing the right is being very effectively implemented by the government. The proof? 220 defamation suits filed in its tenure.
Him versus Her
The DMK is no better or worse than the AIADMK when it comes to filing defamation cases against the news media and stifling their voices. Defamation suit is his favourite ammunition too. But, there is one huge difference.
The moment an unfavourable article appears in the media, the AIADMK immediately retaliates with a defamation suit. But, the DMK leader Karunanidhi completes some preliminary formalities before filing the case.
If a news story appears in the papers criticizing Karunanidhi, his family, or his regime, he would immediately start writing elaborate articles in ‘Murasoli.’ Vitriol would flow from the words; the writing would reek of ulterior motives; the stench of caste-based politics would fill the air. He would brand them as ‘Brahministic writing.’ Only after it all would he file the defamation suit.
The previous DMK regime had a long list of embarrassments – the Eelam wipeout, the clout of Karunanidhi’s family members within the party and the government, the disputes brought about by the Maran brothers, and the 2G scandal, to name a few. Ananda Vikatan published a series of articles on them all. Karunanidhi immediately abused the magazine in Murasoli. ‘Brahminical conspiracy,’ ‘Jayalalithaa’s stooges’ and ‘people who are desperate to bring Jayalalithaa back to power’ were just some of the phrases that were used to describe us. The epitome of the name-calling was a cartoon titled ‘The Gory Tentacles of the Octopus,’ that depicted Jayalalithaa as an octopus with magazines like Ananda Vikatan, Tuglak, Kalki, Dinamani and Dinamalar as her tentacles. Then, he filed the defamation suits.
Equally gifted at retaliating against the media were the second-rung leaders of the party. A. Raja, the disgraced former Minister of Telecommunications, of the 2G scandal notoriety, was particularly troubled by the series of articles that were appearing against him in Junior Vikatan. He went to court to obtain a gag order against the magazine to stop it from writing about him. The case came before Justice Chandru of Madras High Court. The Honourable Judge said, “Persons in public life have no choice but to face such criticism. Therefore, the Vikatan publication cannot be stopped from carrying news about you.”
Another former minister, TR Balu filed civil and criminal cases against Junior Vikatan. The magazine had carried an article on his comments about Rahul Gandhi that he made at the DMK executive committee meeting. The first defamation suit was about this writeup. TR Balu filed the second defamation suit after Junior Vikatan featured an article about the Sethu Samudhram Plan.
Junior Vikatan published a news article about ‘Pottu’ Suresh, believed to be the right-hand man of M.K. Alagiri. He instigated members of a particular caste-based association to protest in front of the Junior Vikatan office (‘Pottu’ Suresh was later murdered in a brutal manner, in Madurai).
Dinabhoomi editor Manimaran and his son Ramesh Kumar were arrested by the police because they gave detailed coverage to the Madurai granite scandal. The harassment that they suffered at the hands of the police made headlines in those days.
In other words, both the parties deal with criticism in a strikingly similar manner.
Reproducing spoken words also amounted to defamation!
This is the ultimate in suppression tactics. One can even understand and accept that there is some logic behind filing defamation suits for news reports and editorials, but, filing cases for publishing the comments made by the opposition leaders was taking things a bit too far! Credit for these trend-setting suits goes to the AIADMK government.
Nakkeeran magazine published an article about Jayalalithaa’s food habits. A defamation suit was filed against the magazine. Its office was brutally attacked. This news was published in The Hindu. A defamation case was filed against the newspaper for attempting to tarnish the Chief Minister’s name.
The DMK cadres, under the leadership of MK Stalin, took out a rally protesting against the Chennai Corporation’s failure to curb the spreading of Cholera. While addressing the rally, he said, “When the state capital is reeling under the cholera epidemic, how is the chief minister able to holiday in Kodanadu?” A defamation case was filed against him. The Times of India, which published excerpts from the speech, was not spared either. A defamation suit was filed against the publication.
Defamation cases were filed against Mu. Karunanidhi for saying that Jayalalithaa was taking rest in Kodanadu, and against the Murasoli newspaper for publishing the quote.
No other state in India has resorted to such fear-tactics.
Media, a divided house
We spoke to senior reporter Rama Subramaniam, about this extraordinary climate of fear and suppression that is prevailing in the state.
“In a democratic country, nobody is restricted from criticizing the government. This is the case with most world nations. It is only in India that defamation suits are filed against such criticism and are treated as potential criminal offences. In the past five years, a government has filed 230 cases against the media and the leaders of the opposition. This has happened only in Tamil Nadu! This can only be described as dictatorship of the worst kind. The success of this regime lies in the fact that despite all these cases, instead of coming together and fighting against the abuse of power, the media remains a divided house. This is exactly what the government wants from us.
“About two months ago, a journalist from Kerala had come to Chennai to attend a seminar. He asked me about the defamation suits that were filed against Ananda Vikatan. When I told him that more than 30 defamation suits were filed against Ananda Vikatan alone, he was stunned. ‘What are the other magazines doing? Why didn’t the journalists protest against this?’ he asked. I had no answer. Fling defamation suits for publishing anything even mildly negative is the dictatorship of the ruling party,” he said.
We spoke to retired Justice Chandru about defamation suits.
“There is no concrete definition for defamation,” he began. “In the past, defamation came under civil suits. In simple words, the affected party was someone with a social standing and respectable position in the society, which was greatly tarnished by a news article that the offender had published. He therefore demanded compensation from the offender. It was later made a criminal case and was added as Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code. The punishment for the offence was described in Section 500.
“Such cases are known as summons cases, because there are no arrests. The defendant has to appear in court and explain his actions. Sentencing comes only after the offence is proved. Unlike other criminal cases, there are no arrest procedures in the very beginning. The defendant is arrested only if he/she fails to turn up in court.
“The problem is – just as there is abuse of right to freedom of speech, there is also an abuse of the limitations imposed on this right. Article 19 (2) of the Constitution defines the limitations on the right to freedom of speech. The article does not bestow upon you the right to criticize others. The government has taken this as its weapon to beat its opponents with. The DMK and the AIADMK are equally notorious in this regard. When they are unable to tolerate criticism, they retaliate with these suits. They are not driven by the desire to protect the right to freedom of speech. Former DMK minister A Raja sought a blanket ban on reporting about him. Here was a man who had to go to court on multiple occasions due to allegations of corruption. Why should the newspapers and magazines not publish it? The ban order itself was a violation of right to freedom of speech.
“This is why cases have been filed for the removal of this particular section. We’re waiting for the judgement. Only after the decision is announced will we know if the right to freedom of speech has been protected or if it has been curtailed,” he said.
The Supreme Court’s condemnation
“The comments and criticism of the opposition parties and the media are directed against the administration and the policies of the ruling party and are not directed against any specific person. These are not aimed at anyone in particular. Then why these criminal defamation suits?” the Supreme Court asked.
Vijayakanth, the DMDK leader, went to the Supreme Court seeking the quashing of the defamation suit that was filed against him. Justices Deepak Mishra and Prafulla C. Pant, of the Supreme Court, who heard the case, said, “Criticism of the rule, the administration, and the government’s policies must not be considered as criticism directed towards an individual. The Tamil Nadu government must first change this outlook. Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code were not created to be used against criticism. The Tamil Nadu Government must understand that.”
Question is – When will they understand that?
Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa
During the DMK’s previous regime, 50 defamation suits were filed on the media and the leaders of the opposition. When the war on Sri Lankan Tamils was at its peak, the Karunanidhi government was on the receiving end of some very bitter criticism from Tamil supporters. Defamation suits were filed against AIADMK general secretary J. Jayalalithaa, MDMK general secretary Vaiko, filmmaker Bharatiraaja, Seeman, PMK founder Ramadas, and Ananda Vikatan.
In 2011, as soon as the AIADMK came to power, it began filing defamation cases. 230 suits have been filed until now. DMK leader Karunanidhi, MK Stalin, Marxist Communist Party’s Tamil Nadu secretary G. Ramakrishnan, DMDK leader Vijayakanth, PMK founder Dr. Ramadas, and Anbumani Ramadas, and magazines including Ananda Vikatan, Junior Vikatan, Nakkeeran, The Hindu, Times of India, and India Today are among the defendants.
A special advocate to file defamation suits
The legal department of the Tamil Nadu Government carefully goes through the press releases and interviews given by the leaders of the opposition, articles, and editorials that appear in all the newspapers and magazines. Articles or clippings that carry negative comments and criticism about the government are sent to the Chief Attorney who specializes in Criminal Law. He would go through them all and send a note on the clippings and news articles that have defamation-suit potentials. The notes are sent back to the legal department. They are then forwarded to the Chief Secretary. Government Orders are then issued to file defamation suits on those reports. Based on the Government Order, Advocate Jagan, the public prosecutor in criminal cases, files defamation suits in the Chennai Metropolitan Courts. Another advocate, Mr. Ashokan, has been appointed for the sole task of looking after these cases!
We will be exonerated!
Advocate N. Rajesh, Legal Advisor for the Vikatan Group of Publications
“The magazines published by the Vikatan group received the most number of defamation suits during this regime. But the Vikatan group did not seek the intervention of the High Court or the Supreme Court in any of these cases. Many political leaders, including Vijayakanth, the leader of the opposition, went to the Supreme Court, seeking relief from these defamation suits, but the Vikatan group continues to fight the cases boldly because we are confident that we will be exonerated.”